4 April 2017

London 16 - Beyond our Kensington

Kyoto in Holland?

We emerge from the perilous depths of the Peccadillo Line at Hyde Park Corner, and with a quick genuflection towards the Wellington Arch turn our backs on the particulate pollution of Piccadilly and breathe the salubrious airs along the damned (dammed?) course of the Westbourne Stream (aka the Long Water and the Serpentine – created by Queen Caroline, wife of George II, in 1728).  Our destination is (are?) the gardens of Kensington, and the Abramovitch-rich heights beyond the Palace.

The Park is busy, though it is neither school holidays nor the weekend.  All sorts take their ease here, from joggers to boaters, cyclists to wanderers; women in niqabs sit on benches, while their children feed the swans.  There is rest and relaxation in the atmosphere, almost as if outside the gates a war is being waged. Perhaps there is?  I read some time ago that Kensington and Chelsea has the most polluted air in the United Kingdom, with more than one in 12 of all deaths in the London borough attributable to tiny particles of soot largely emitted by diesel engines (The Guardian, 10/04/2014). The only other borough with similar pollution levels is Westminster.

The statistics, collated by locality by an agency of the Department of Health, suggest that London and south-east England have by far the worst air in Britain, largely due to traffic levels. In London, in 2010, it was estimated that due to air pollution 41,404 life years were lost, while in south-east England in that year 4,034 people died and 41,728 years were lost.

In October 2016 the Evening Standard published statistics from analysis by Clean Air in London which indicated that the annual death toll from particulate pollution in the capital was about to reach 2,500, adding that levels of this type of toxic pollution, found by scientists to be particularly dangerous as it can infiltrate deep into the lungs and into the bloodstream, are worse in central London, including Westminster, and Kensington and Chelsea.

So, breathing shallowly, we take the air in the great green swathe through this heart of darkness.  Following for the moment in the footsteps of Tom Pocock, whose Evening Standard Book, London Walks was published in 1973, we cross the traffic-ridden road into Kensington Gardens.  The atmosphere changes, he wrote.  Hyde Park is not welcoming: it is perhaps too open, its woodlands lacking authority; its history is much involved with violence, executions, demonstrations, prostitution.  Kensington Gardens looks loved and is welcoming in return.

Our first stop here is the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, sited in a royal gunpowder magazine (safely away from everything in case it exploded), where, in Speak, four artists explore language as a medium for action, exchange and disruption. Together, as an extension of the worldview of John Latham (see below), they reveal how [his] ideas continue to resonate: from taking an unconventional approach to the reception and transference of knowledge to prioritising the role of the artist in society as an agent for change.

We proceed across the bridge to the former tea pavilion of the Serpentine Gallery where the World View of late conceptual artist John Latham is on display.  Latham saw the artist as holding up a mirror to society: an individual whose dissent from the norm could lead to a profound reconfiguration of reality as we know it

Outside, past George Frederic Watts’s Statue of Physical Energy (placed here in 1907 and, according to the artist, symbol of that restless Physical impulse to seek the still unachieved in the domain of material things), we come to the Round Pond, where, as a child visiting my aunt and her family who lived nearby, I used to toddle, enthralled by the model yachts that breezed across the miniature waves.  

Here too the young Queen Victoria may have paddled, risking scoldings from her nannies, as she grew up in the Palace, which had been transformed from mere Nottingham House to Kensington Palace by William (III) and Mary (II) in 1689.  The young Victoria stands in cold marble now, in her night clothes, as she was when news of her accession was brought to her (Lend me a looking glass;/ If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,/ Why, then she lives….)

These are not the only Gardens in Kensington, but before we leave I ponder on the definition of a park.  The English word comes to us from distant German through French, and in Old English was used as a term of forest laws for an enclosed area obtainable as a franchise from the crown for beasts of the chase; (Hyde Park was Henry VIII’s royal deer chase and then included what is now Kensington Gardens.)  In the 18th century a park became defined as a tract of ground surrounding a house and planted with trees. 

The modern meaning of park, however, is an amenity area in or within the neighbourhood of a town, and is the result of public agitation which began in the 1830s.  The Edwin Chadwick report of the poor law commission of 1842 and the royal commission of 1843 on the unhygienic conditions of the new towns led to the passing of the Public Health Act of 1848, which empowered local administrative bodies to establish public walks and means of exercise or amusement to the middle or humbler classes.

The Oxford English Dictionary has a fifth definition of park, which is military, and which is given as the space occupied by the artillery, wagons, beasts, stores, etc., in an encampment…. (1683), which, in 1925, became a place where motor (and other) vehicles may be left…..  So, little by little, our health-giving public spaces give way to the pollution of our world by the infernal compunction engine….

Anyway, back to Kensington, and its gardens.  Behind the Palace, the quiet street called Kensington Palace Gardens is colloquially known as Billionaire’s Row where the average house price was calculated in 2014 as being £19.2 million, or £1,123 per square foot, which is pretty much 100 times the national average.  One resident here is Roman Abramovitch, who bought his pad off hedge fund manager Pierre Lagrange in 2011 for £90 million (he was done, perhaps – Lagrange bought it in 2004 for £19m).

Only a few steps beyond here I find Lucerne Mews, a quiet cul-de-sac where a 42m² one-bedroom flat is up for rent at about £2,000 pcm – more my style, I think, but still beyond my pocket….

Anyway, moving on, I wander up Campden Hill, where English Heritage Blue Plaques seem to grow like lichen on the faces of elegant homes.  

It would seem to be a desirable locality (despite the air quality).  A two bedroom flat in Observatory Gardens is currently for sale at £3,750,000, leasehold, with an annual service charge of more than £2,000.  

Nearby, in Airlie Gardens, a simply stunning penthouse flat approached by a private lift, situated on the third, fourth and fifth floors of this magnificent late Victorian building with access to delightful communal gardens, seems a bargain at £4,750,000. 

I’ll take two.

Not everything here is for the rich, however, (though you have to be pretty well-off to live in the catchment area, ‘tis true!)  Holland Park School, just off the Campden Hill Road, between Airlie Gardens and Campden Hill, was one of London’s first comprehensive schools when it opened in 1958. It may not have been paradise when my cousins attended in the late sixties/early seventies (walking there from the Notting Hill/Shepherd’s Bush boundary please note!) and in the 90’s it was well and truly ticked off by Ofsted.  In recent times, however, it has picked itself up and seems to be doing very well.

And, just over the wall, literally, and not surprisingly, is Holland Park, a patch of welcome green apart from the great buildings of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  I would say this is another Kensington Garden, but actually it’s a complex of gardens.  In 1605 Sir Walter Cope, who was to become Chancellor of the Exchequer for James I, had a castle built here.  Unsurprisingly this was named Cope Castle

It became Holland House in 1797, when Sir Geoffrey Webster (clearly a principled man) divorced his wife Elizabeth on the grounds of adultery with a certain Henry Richard Vassal-Fox, the 3rd Baron Holland, from Wiltshire (at 24, clearly a bounder).  The two lovers immediately married and starting having lavish parties in the House, which Mrs Holland (My Old Dutch?) had happily inherited.  For many years this was famous as a salon for the glitterati, frequented by Lord Byron, Walter Scott, Macaulay, Dickens, Disraeli et al.  According to my friend Tom Pocock, he of the Standard, Holland House was more than the Chequers or Cliveden of its day…. [it] was said to be the intellectual centre of the world.

At the beginning of the twentieth century these were the largest private gardens in London, and the place was still fashionable in 1939, when George VI and Queen Elizabeth attended a debutante ball there.  On September 27th, 1940, however, it was hit by 22 incendiary bombs, and only parts of the building survived. 


Until relatively recently there was a Youth Hostel here, but this has closed.  Currently the summer ballroom is the Belvedere restaurant; the Orangery and the Ice House are exhibition spaces and Opera Holland Park traditionally stages performances here in June and July on what remains of the front terrace.

The fifty-five acres of grounds are split into three areas, with a large sports field to the south, woodland to the north, and the house and formal gardens in the middle.  This is where the Dutch Garden is, with carefully manicured flower beds and choreographed colour. 

Walking away from the House, I then come to the Fukushima Memorial Garden, a meadow of peace which was opened on July 24th 2012 to commemorate the heartfelt gratitude of the Japanese people to the British people for their support following the natural disaster that struck Fukushima, Japan on 11 March 2011

It is almost an empty space, covered by a green lawn on which a few rocks and a lantern are carefully placed. The landscape of the garden gives the feeling of emptiness left by the tsunami.  It is only small, but it shines as a timely reminder that across the world people need to help each other.  Our planet is fragile, and shit happens, but holding hands is better than building walls.

And next to this is the beautiful Kyoto Garden.  

This was constructed as part of the Japan Festival 1991 on the occasion of the centenary of the Japan Society in Britain

Kyoto was for over a thousand years the Imperial capital of Japan (Kyoto means capital cityTokyo, apart from being an anagram of Kyoto, means western capital);  it is still an important city with over 1.5 million inhabitants, but the seat of government moved to Tokyo in 1868. 

Westerners will have heard of Kyoto because in 1997 it hosted the conference which resulted in the extension of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  This was based on two premises:  that climate change is happening, and that man-produced carbon dioxide emissions are the cause.  The Kyoto Protocol implemented the United Nations objective to fight global warming by reducing greenhouse gases (GHG). 

This has nothing to do with the Kyoto Garden here in the heart of Holland Park, but, bearing in mind the air quality in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and the traffic along Kensington High Street and Holland Park Avenue and all the other arteries, veins and blood vessels of the circulation system of this great city, it does no harm to bear it in mind. 

There is irony in the air.  The pretty Kyoto Garden smiles at us with cherry-blossom calm while the adjacent Fukushima Garden commemorates a natural catastrophe.  Certain world leaders deny climate change, while others ignore it.  The thousands dying from air pollution in London may, perhaps, not themselves much care about the gradual disappearance of glaciers, nor the increasing production of champagne-style wines in England; daffodils in December and sharks in the Irish Sea may have nothing to do with Koi Carp in the pond here, but the ignorance of those who bury their heads in the sand does no-one any favours.

They used to believe that the earth was flat.  That did not mean that it is.

I pay my respects to a gloomy statue of Lord Holland, mired in a black pool, and leave the gardens.  Doffing my hat to Lady Antonia Fraser Pinter at 52 Campden Hill Square, I make my way to The Windsor Castle, which, my companion Tom tells me, was once a place for outdoor drinking, but now its hilltop light and freshness are being menaced by an over-powering block of flats… 

We duck inside, stooping through the polished partitions, and relax with a glass of ale, thinking, subliminally, of John Latham, holding up his mirror….. 

Then, suitably refreshed, I start home. On a previous visit I parked somewhere around here, thinking of the irony of the word park.  I would have driven myself home, but leaves had fallen on my bonnet and windscreen, and Parker had disappeared.  I thought it safer, or healthier to walk…. 

1 comment:

  1. Diverting as ever. Thanks and best wishes, Slim